When Photography Runs In Your Blood

Features Issue 202 Sep, 2018

Photography as an art form is not taken seriously sometimes. A popular saying goes, “Anyone with an expensive camera is a photographer”. To me, photography is a universal language that transcends literacy and cultures. Even an illiterate person or someone who comes from a different cultural and linguistic background can appreciate photos. Photography is an expression captured, at times, for eternity, forging invaluable evidence for posterity. A photo can evoke an emotional response in us. That is the mark of good photography! Today it has become accessible to the masses at an unprecedented level. Anyone with a smartphone can produce pictures. On top of that, the booming social media provides a platform of sharing and appreciating them; pictures of both the monumental and the mundane. It is safe to say that it has, in a way, become more democratic. Photos have found a new meaning and a new role in this century. At the same time, vintage photos have become priceless and we must salute those photographers who have left behind them rare glimpses of life of the past.

No single individual in Nepal must have a more immaculate record of Nepali history in the form of photographs than the celebrated photographer Kiran Chitrakar. He has worked for Nepal Television for 33 years as their chief cameraman and is the recipient of the prestigious Gorkha Dakshin Bahu for his contributions. He also happens to have an illustrious family history. He is a descendant of pioneer court photographers, Dirgha Man Chitrakar (grandfather) and Ganesh Man Chitrakar (father). His son, Swaraj, is also a photographer, and he is at present involved in digitizing the old photos, and along with his sister Cristeena, hopes to publish a book someday with those important pictures taken by their predecessors. Currently, his family has an impressive collection of five thousand negatives dating all the way back to his grandfather in the late 1800s.

Etymologically, his surname Chitrakar is composed of ‘chitra’ which means picture and ‘kar’ means craftsman. Looking back at the achievements of their ancestors, the picture of Jaya Prakash Malla, the last Malla king of Kantipur, in Kumari House was painted by Laxmi Lal Chitrakar, the great-grandfather of Kiran Chitrakar. Dirgha Man, his grandfather, was under artistic apprenticeship of Purna Man, a distant relative, from the tender age of fourteen. He is said to have had an innate penchant for painting. He worked in the palace from the time of Girvan Yuddha and Mathabar Singh Thapa. The advent of photography was revolutionary, and most of the painters found themselves sidelined by this new technology. At first, Gyahendra Shumsher had brought Bengali photographers, but due to their mistrust of foreigners, the Ranas decided to turn their painters into their photographers.

The story goes that Dirgha Man sought help of the royal physician when his brother Surya Lal was seriously ill. In return for his treatment, he presented the physician with a medallion painted by himself. The then Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher came across the medallion and was thoroughly impressed by it. He appointed him the court painter and royal photographer. Mr. Chitrakar still has a document of the purchase of chemicals from Calcutta in 1917 A.D. In it, Dirgha Man was mentioned as the official royal photographer of Nepal. He even accompanied Chandra Shumsher in his 1908 state visit to England. He took pictures of the Shree Teen Maharaja on various occasions, one of which is presented here. In this photo, he is with his second wife Bal Kumari Devi of Jajarkot and their two sons, Bishnu Shumsher J.B. Rana (right) and Shankar Shumsher J.B. Rana (left). It was taken in the 1910s. The backdrop in the photo was painted by the photographer himself and is still in possession of his family.

Another photograph of his, also included here, shows the Gadhi Baithak during a royal procession. It was taken most probably before 1908 A.D. Apart from photographing the royals and aristocrats, he has taken numerous pictures of the landscapes and towns of Nepal. He went on a journey from Kathmandu to Muktinath, traversing Palpa and Riddhi Siddhi in 1915 A.D. Mr. Kiran Chitrakar has more than 300 photos of this trip. They depict life in Nepal in the early 1900s. Some of Dirgha Man’s paintings are on display in the National Museum, Chhauni. A few of them are housed in the parliament building and many are still in private collections. He served as a painter and photographer to the royals until his demise at the age of 71, in 1945 A.D. His life was long and indubitably eventful.

His father, Ganesh Man, too lived a remarkable life. He filled in his father’s shoes as a court photographer till 2007 B.S. After the downfall of the Rana regime, the photography department was unfortunately closed. From 1951 to 1970 A.D., he worked for USAID as their chief photographer. After retiring, he took pictures for a survey report on the Kathmandu valley published by UNESCO in two volumes. He was the first Nepali to process color slides. Talking about the firsts, he was also the first in Nepal to take an aerial shot from a helicopter. In the 1960s, he took courses in advanced photography in Delhi, most probably making him the first Nepali to take professional training in photography. It is Mr. Chitrakar’s ambition to compile a book named Kathmandu: Then and Now. He intends to take pictures from the exact same location whence his grandfather or father took pictures and document the changes. He intends to go on a trip to Muktinath following his grandfather’s trail for this very purpose. He also wants to take pictures of Kathmandu Valley from the same spots his father had photographed for the UNESCO survey report.

The Chitrakars get invitations to exhibit their photographs from all over the world. They have displayed their work in India, Bangladesh, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Cambodia, England, France, U.S.A., Switzerland, Norway, and Russia. Mr. Chitrakar wants to exhibit his collection throughout Nepal. Most Nepalis do not know about the existence of such photographs that have managed to capture a snippet of our history. For instance, I never knew how Chandra Shumsher actually looked like until I saw the above photo. Money cannot replace the value of these pictures. They have preserved what time has obliterated. In fact, Mr. Chitrakar has a vision to open a museum in Nepal dedicated solely to photography. He would appreciate the government or a donor organization’s assistance for this project. It would be a powerful initiative to safeguard and showcase history through photographs.

Mr. Chitrakar himself has visited all 75 districts of Nepal and taken aerial shots of 50 of them. He has taken extensive photographs of the devastation wrecked by the massive 2015 earthquakes on our cultural heritages. He was also a part of the entourage of Sher Bahadur Deuba’s state visit to Britain in 1994 A.D. as the official cameraman. He has received letters of appreciation from Buckingham Palace on behalf of the Queen, and also from Prince Harry when he visited Nepal. He is also weary of the lax copyright laws in Nepal. His collection can easily be uploaded on Facebook without paying him the rightful royalties. The glass negatives (known as photographic plates) that were in use well into the 1940s (in Nepal) are difficult to preserve, as they are very delicate. Many of his photographic plates were irretrievably damaged in an unfortunate incident, where they were not handled with proper care.

All the accolades aside, Mr. Chitrakar is first and foremost an artist. Yes, his collection is invaluable due to its historical importance, but every kind of art is important in its own right. What sets his family apart is their continuous dedication to this form of art, generation after generation. They have amassed a stupendous body of work that bears testament to our unique heritage. His son enjoys taking pictures of street life and cultural events. But it is his mission not only to preserve those photographs, but also to let the public know that such photos exist. If the museum were really to be opened, it would instantly become a popular destination for educational excursions, and also, a tourist attraction. But, most importantly, it would make Nepalis feel richer, as we get an amazing opportunity to connect with our past.